Universities in England and Wales will learn tomorrow whether they are allowed to charge students the maximum £9,000-a-year tuition fee from September 2012.
Most institutions are expected to be given the go-ahead to charge students the top fee on at least some courses when the Office for Fair Access (OFFA), the university admissions watchdog, announces its verdict.
Universities that wanted to charge students more than £6,000 a year had to seek an access agreement with the regulator, spelling out their plans to encourage disadvantaged young people to seek places. Two-thirds of English universities have applied to OFFA to charge the maximum.
Tuition fees in Northern Ireland will be frozen at £3,290 — but there will be £40m of Stormont cuts to fund it, the Belfast Telegraph revealed on Saturday.
It is understood Employment and Learning Minister Stephen Farry, who is responsible for higher education, will meet First Minister Peter Robinson, deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and Finance Minister Sammy Wilson today to progress the issue.
It will then be put before the Executive next month.
Sir Martin Harris, head of OFFA until last month, has always said that provided an English or Welsh university has a satisfactory access agreement, his body has no alternative but to approve their right to levy the maximum fee.
David Willetts, the Universities Secretary, said in his White Paper on higher education last month that he would like to give OFFA a wider range of powers over fees. He wants the regulator to be able to suggest a reduction in the fee level rather than deploying the “nuclear option” of refusing an application or fining the university.
There have been reports of OFFA telling some universities that their access agreements need revising before approval. However, the crunch is likely to come the year after the introduction of the new fees structure.